Short Takes on Recent Releases | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Short Takes on Recent Releases 

Abstract soundtracks from Radian’s Stefan Nemeth, no-nonsense synth pop from Synthetic Division, and rediscovered American primitives from the Numero Group

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NEMETHFilm(Thrill Jockey)

For his debut solo album Stefan Nemeth, longtime member of the Viennese post-post-rock trio Radian, has compiled and modified abstract soundscapes he's created over the past few years for short films and experimental videos by Dariusz Kowalski, Lotte Schreiber, and Anu Pennanen as well as an unfinished movie of his own about Brasilia. Nemeth's playing on this disc is similar to his synthesizer work in Radian—at first it sounds like an amorphous swell of sound, but time and attention reveal layers of engrossing detail.

Aware that film music often fails to stand on its own, Nemeth edited, remixed, or reconstructed the album's six pieces to varying degrees. Two are reportedly almost untouched, but since I haven't seen the films I can't say how the other four have changed. The biggest difference, though, is the addition of Radian drummer Martin Brandlmayr, one of the most distinctive percussionists on the planet. He can play the most robotic, metronomic groove and somehow extract funk from it—dry, stuttering funk, but funk all the same.

Nemeth, who mainly uses synth in Radian, plays electric guitar here too—though everything's so processed it can be hard to tell what's what. His washes of controlled feedback and thick, luminous waves of humming resonance hover, throb, and burst, underlined by a hypnotically regular pulse that's either hammered out on percussion or gently implied by electronics. Bits of dialogue and ambient sound from the films add an extra layer of activity here and there, but the core of the music is a matrix of beautiful long tones on synth and guitar, flecked with subtle repetitions like the clinks of tuning-head harmonics on "Field." Many of the loops are slippery, snaking through the dominant pulse in a way that makes it hard to pin down when each cycle begins, and this complex interaction between rhythms gives the music its center of gravity—an approach that recalls This Heat, one of Radian's key influences.

A few passages on Film approach the conventionally cinematic—the tense pileup of piano notes in "Soprus," for instance—but while I was listening to it, I never once thought it sounded like soundtrack music. That might not seem like a compliment, considering that it actually is soundtrack music, but it's high praise in my book. —Peter Margasak

SYNTHETIC DIVISIONGet With the Programs(self-released)

This two-man synth-pop unit from Charlottesville, Virginia, sounds a lot like Depeche Mode, but that doesn't turn out to be such a hard thing to forgive. For one thing, singer and sole constant member Shawn Decker, a mild hemophiliac, contracted HIV from a blood transfusion as a kid and chose to meet Martin, Dave, and the boys when the Make-a-Wish Foundation gave him his one shot. If your consolation prize, in lieu of things like, oh, having a foreseeable future, had been a chance to shake hands with one of your favorite bands, don't you suppose your fandom might've blossomed into an obsession?

If the Mr. Show sketch about Imminent Death Syndrome just came to mind, I understand. But Synthetic Division can play a lot more than just the sympathy card. The melodies on the band's first full-length, Get With the Programs, are delicious but dark, world-weary but sweet, proving that the old DM formula isn't exhausted, no matter how unfashionable it may be. It's not even winded.

Model DM songs like the voluptuous "Blasphemous Rumours" demonstrated to the sensitive-weirdo set of the 80s that dance music didn't have to be brainless and insipid. Synthetic Division have likewise learned how to appeal to the head and heart as well as the ass, but their tunes, rather than swimming in atmospherics, are drawn along by simple, deliberate beats, supplemented with a clear countermelody or two, and sung in a voice that's simultaneously hesitant, sad, and warm. At its most open, Decker's singing recalls the innocent crooning of Anything Box, while the occasional burbling, skyward-spiraling keyboard line reminds me of Cosmicity. And coloring everything is a certain bitter wistfulness endemic to bedroom indie-pop acts like the Russian Futurists.

Synthetic Division sound more stripped down than many fellow DM disciples, with an unfussiness that sometimes suggests Kraftwerk. Their lyrics are similarly streamlined, and often imply a contempt for people who spend too much time examining themselves or parsing philosophical questions—unusual in a genre that's so tolerant of sentiment and self-pity, but certainly consistent with Decker's backstory. (In the chorus of "Count Me Out" he sings, "No need for the divine / No feelings to describe / The suits behind the afterlife can count me out.") Even "Been There, Done That," whose title contains most of its lyrics, manages to make a point about spoiled, bored kids—it's not hard to see why Decker would have so little patience for anybody pissing their precious hours away acting jaded. Synthetic Division don't make self-indulgent music, and it doesn't seem they're too interested in attracting self-indulgent fans either. —Ann Sterzinger

VARIOUS ARTISTSWayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli(Numero Group)

Few kinds of music are so closely associated with such a small pool of players as American fingerstyle guitar—or, to use the words of John Fahey, the style's most celebrated practitioner, "American primitive" guitar. Fahey, Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, and Peter Lang achieved a certain notoriety playing this strange, technically demanding hybrid form—really a constellation of hybrid forms, since each musician tended to develop his own idiosyncratic combo of early blues, ragtime, country, flamenco, classical, or even raga, held together by a chugging, circular rhythmic drive—but sometimes it seems like all the other people who played American fingerstyle in the 60s and 70s never even existed. Fortunately, as current players like Sir Richard Bishop, James Blackshaw, and Jack Rose lead the genre down new avenues, they're awakening an interest in unheralded past masters—and of all the efforts to reassess these forgotten fingerpickers, none has cast a broader net than a new compilation from the local Numero Group label.

Wayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli is, like most Numero releases, lovingly packaged—its 40-page booklet is crammed with essays (mostly by label co-owner Rob Sevier) and reproductions of art from the original albums. The 14 tracks, recorded between 1968 and 1980, were almost all released on tiny independent labels (if they were released at all), and many of the players have disappeared into the mists of time. The liner notes paint a picture of a smattering of dedicated loners, inspired by Fahey and company and toiling in obscurity to develop their own instrumental language. But not all the names are totally unfamiliar: Richard Crandell, who made a pair of guitar albums in '74 and '80, picked up the mbira while driving Thomas Mapfumo's tour bus and has released two great thumb-piano discs on John Zorn's Tzadik label in the past four years. And Daniel Hecht, who stopped playing guitar during to an excruciating bout of psoriasis that sometimes left his instrument a "gory mess," went on to publish several successful mystery novels.

The range of influences evident in the music makes it impossible to describe the compilation succinctly. On his warped 1979 piece "Delta Freeze," Jim Ohlschmidt makes heavy use of a slide to give the music a dark, punishing force, while George Cromarty's 1973 recording "Flight" is much lighter, almost ethereal—in fact Cromarty would later record for Dancing Cat Records, a subsidiary of Windham Hill, where that style had many partisans. Toward the end of Wayfaring Strangers, the selections reflect a more cosmic and introspective influence—you can hear traces of progressive British players like Pentangle's John Renbourn and Bert Jansch as well as the more meditative sounds of Windham Hill founder William Ackerman—but American roots music is always the foundation. If you're familiar with the big names of the genre, you already know the territory this disc charts, but these little-known guitarists, superb players all, found their own ways to translate technical brilliance into homespun beauty. —PM

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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